San Francisco’s Cable Cars -  A Magical Way To See the Golden Gate Bridge,
Union Square, Chinatown and More...

WOW! Imagine the thrill of riding the cable cars in San Francisco.

Just think... in an age of seat belts and air bags... this rickety riding old-fashioned thrill... gives you the same excitement today... as it did when it first started running way back in 1873.
 
So what if they’re not the most sensible way to get around... when you’re in San Francisco... this ride is a must-do experience.

Clanking up and down the city’s steep hills, carrying both locals and visitors alike.

Picture yourself sitting inside... or hanging onto leather straps... or standing the outer running boards. 

San Francisco cable car with riders

Did you know that San Francisco’s cable cars are...

...the only mobile National Monument in the world and are listed on the National Register of Historic Places?
 
Well... they are!

You want to hear a short story about why they were first invented?

The tale goes that... on a typical damp summer’s day in 1869, a man witnessed a horrible accident.

Andrew Smith Hallidie watched as heavily weighted streetcars, pulled by
horse-drawn-teams  - tried to tow loaded streetcars up a steep wet cobblestone slope; only to see them slide backwards under their heavy loads... dragging the horses to their deaths.

After seeing that awful accident, Hallidie - who had, earlier, patented metal rope - thought he could come up with a better way to carry heavy loads up and down the city’s steep slopes.
 
He devised a mechanism that allowed cars to be pulled by an endless cable running in a slot between the rails just underground.

So after getting financial backing, he and his associates created, patented, and constructed the first cable car railway.

Hallidie's invention changed the way people in San Francisco live... making it possible for them to build their homes and live on the steep hillsides.

How do cable cars run...

Did you know that cable cars don’t have their own engines or motors to operate them? Well they don’t.

Instead their source of power comes from four powerful electric motors - 510 hp - located in the cable car barn and powerhouse at Washington and Mason Streets  - home to the Cable Car Museum.
 
Each car is pulled along the street by a 1-¼" cable - lying in a trench in between the tracks.
 
Every cable has its own set of winding wheels powered by their own electric motor. Stop by the museum to see how this works. It’s a great little tour and it’s FREE!

Anyway... each car has a huge vise-like mechanical grip that latches onto the cable... pulling it along the street at about 9½ miles an hour.
 
The operators - the gripman and the conductor - train and work in tandem.
 
The conductor acts as the rear brakeman for hilly descents and also takes care of passengers - collecting fares and such.

So... when you hop onboard... pay your fares directly to the conductor.

But a better way... of the lines near Powell and Market intersection - by Union Square - or Hyde and Beach intersection - just below Ghirardelli Square.

Also... since you love hanging off the rails and taking pictures, the conductor keeps a watchful eye, especially around famous Lombard Street, the second most crookedest street in the world.

The gripman goes through a very physical, rigorous training.

It’s not easy operating those 15,500 pounds cars.

He - or she - must learn how to navigate the grip’s tug to maintain the right speed to use up and down the hills... as well as getting around the curves and through the intersections.

Plus... the gripman must be knowledgeable of San Francisco so they’re helpful to all the folks along for the ride.

In addition... they must always watch out for cars, people walking, and bicyclists.

So... since they don’t have engines... you know how the cable cars turn around?

There are four huge turntables to turn the trolleys around... located at the end - or beginning - of their runs on...

  • Market and Powell Streets
  • Hyde and Beach - "The Friedel Klussmann Memorial Turnaround"
  • Bay and Taylor... And one in the Museum at...
  • Mason and Washington Streets... for directing cars out onto the line

The gripman and conductor get off the car - built to only go one direction - and manually push and pull it on these big turntables... until the car’s in line to head back up the street.

San Francisco cable car on turntable

San Francisco’s trolley system is the world's LAST manually operated system in the world.
 
Ride any of the three routes in operation today. Like the...

  • Powell-Mason Line
  • Powell-Hyde Line
  • California Street Line

By the way... make sure you know where each line ends up... so you’re not surprised when it’s time to get off.
 
Catch a ride in two ways...

Jump on-board at the turnaround stops at the beginning and end of the lines
 
Or do what the locals do... follow the tracks up a few blocks and hop on when the car stops... grab hold of one of the poles. Have your fare ready to hand to the conductor.

Besides... here’s where you get the best views of San Francisco.

At Powell and Market streets... you can climb onto one of two rides - after it gets off the turntable of course... the Powell-Hyde line or the Powell-Mason line.
 
The Powell-Hyde line - the most scenic route - begins at the Powell-Market turntable and runs over Nob and Russian hills... passing sights like... Union Square, the Cable Car Museum, and Lombard Street before ending at the waterfront turnaround - aka "The Friedel Klussmann Memorial Turnaround" - at Fisherman’s Wharf near Ghirardelli Square.
 
Just a quick note... Friedel Klussmann was key in saving the cable cars from becoming obsolete in San Francisco.

Now... the Powell-Mason line also begins at the Powell-Market turntable, and then runs up and over Nob Hill, passing by Union Square, the edge of Chinatown, the Museum, and then cruises down Mason Street to Columbus Avenue.
 
If you get off at Columbus, you’ll be just a few blocks below North Beach.
 
But if you continue on... you’ll  wind up at the end of the line... down at Bay Street... just a couple of blocks inland from Fisherman's Wharf.
 
The signs on Powell Street cars are color coded to help you.
 
The yellow signs take you towards Bay and Taylor streets... and the red signs take you towards Ghirardelli Square.

The California Street line runs East-West from the Financial District, just a few blocks inland from the Ferry Building Marketplace on Market Street... through Chinatown... over Nob Hill... and stops at Van Ness Avenue.
 
The locals use this line to commute into downtown. Plus... it’s usually free of the long lines that the other two routes contend with.

It's a magical journey and a great way to see some of the sights of the city.

So have fun experiencing San Francisco's historic Cable Cars!

So... what are you waiting for... let’s go!


Return from Cable Cars to San Francisco Bay Area

Return from Cable Cars to Home

Related Pages

Panning for gold